A Sri Lankan Train Ride

We drove from Nuwira Eliya to Nanu-Oya and took the 2 1/2 hour scenic train ride to Ella. The train reminded us of the backpacker train we took from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. Instead of a lovely valley by the river in Peru, the Sri Lankan scenery was hill side tea plantations with workers picking tea. Instead of switchbacks, thankfully, the train hugged the base of the hills and passed under tunnels. The ride was a nice one, but became repetitive after the first hour.

There are several classes of seats on the train. Tourist class is open seating. First and second class are assigned seating, with the difference being that first class is air conditioned and the windows can’t be opened. As a result, first class is no good if for people who want to take pictures. And, the elevation makes the heat manageable so the AC is not really needed.

Ella: 98 Acres Eco-Friendly Resort

We stayed 98 Acres, an eco-friendly boutique hotel just outside of town. The location is ideal for those who want to climb Little Adams Peak. The resort consisted of 12 bungalows each housing 2 suites. Our unit was the one that was located at the very end, next to the spa and very close to the climb up to Adams Peak. After 315 steps to the top of Admas Peak, we were rewarded with 360 degrees view of the countryside and of Ella Rock. There was a small altar with a Buddha at the top of Little Adams Peak. Devotees climb the peak to make offerings especially on Poya days.

From the balcony in our unit, we had an unobstructed view of Little Adams Peak and Ella Rock. 98 acres is a resort that sits on – you guess it, 98 acres of tea plantation that belongs to UVA Greenlands. The room was rustic, one of the walls was lined with old wood taken from old tea crates, the king-size bed was huge, the largest we slept on and ever so comfortable. Instead of air conditioning there is a large ceiling fan. Even in the summer, there is no real need for air conditioning at that elevation. For privacy, you can lower these blinds or leave them semi shuttered so you can be woken by the sunrise rising behind Little Adams Peak.

The large bathroom is wonderfully equipped with a rain shower separated from the sink and toilet area by a clear glass wall. Natural ayurvedic soaps, shampoos and conditioners are provided for your use.

The resort is not wheelchair accessible – there are hundreds of steps, to your rooms, to the pool, to the reception and most importantly, to the restaurant. The resort employs golf carts that would bring you and your luggage up and down the narrow paths lined with tea bushes.

Mihintale

After spending much of the day at Anuradhapura, went over to Mihintale for a short visit. As it was Poya Day, this area was also very crowded. Exhausted and hot, we elected not to climb the 1,843 steps up to Mihintale. Instead we drove up to near the top and  climbed a shorter distance.

We would recommend others to do the day in reverse–Mihintale first when you have energy for the climb. Or spend two days seeing the sites. 

This site dates to 247 BC. It is believed to be where a Buddhist monk from India named Mahinda brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka by converting King Devanamplayatissa. As a result, this site is revered by the Singhalese.

At the top there are three places to climb further. One is Kantaka Chetiya, a dagoba built around 250BC. We tried to climb but the wait was too long so we only went halfway. 

Rekawa Turtles

 

We walk into the courtyard. About 40 people are sitting around in folding chairs. We were greeted by Saman, a tall, gruff man who has spent 20+ years protecting the giant seas turtles of Rekawa. On the floors are crude paintings of different kinds of turtles that visit Rekawa to deposit their eggs. 
“Here are  the rules. Only red lights. The turtles can’t see that range very well. No flash photography. Stand 10 meters away from the turtles when they are digging the egg chamber. Don’t stand in front of a turtle. Only behind. Sit over there. I’ll tell you if the turtles arrive.”

It is 8:30 pm. 

At 9:15pm, “A turtle has come on the beach. Pay now,” says Saman. Everyone lines up to pay the 1,000 rupees (about $8). 

Saman then leads us on to the dark beach. There are a million stars above us but no moon. It’s balmy. We walk very quietly in darkness except for a few red flashlights and in anticipation of seeing one of these giant turtles lay eggs. 

When we arrive 15 minutes later, Saman announces, “She is still digging. Wait here. Stay 10 meters away. No lights.”

30 minutes pass. The waves crash against the shore. People clump in groups, talking quietly, reading their phones. Some get tired and sit on the sand. 

“She’s now digging the egg chamber-75 centemeters. It takes about 20 minutes.”

15 minutes pass. 

“The egg chamber has collapsed. She’ll probably go back to the sea. Make two lines so she can pass. Wait. Looks like she’s going to try again. Right there. Back up. Stay 10 meters away. No flash. No white light.”

It’s now 10:30pm. We’ve been on the beach for 2 hours and everyone is worried that we won’t get to see the turtle lay her eggs. The tide is also coming in, closer and closer to us. 

45 minutes pass. 

“She’s done with the egg chamber. She started to lay eggs. Line up 10 at a time. First ten follow me.”

Turtle eggs!

Relief and excitement ripple through the group. 

We stand behind the turtle peering into the hole. Can’t see anything. He points a red light and we move slightly to the right. Under the red light we see white eggs the size of ping pong balls. It’s amazing to see. This green turtle is about 40 years old, three feet long and is laying more than 100 eggs. 

After everyone has seen the turtle, we all go back up and stand behind to watch. 

She finishes laying eggs and now starts to cover the eggs with sand. She will now spend 1+ hours completely covering the hole she has dug.

We watch as she pushes sand with her front and back flippers. She throws sand 5-6 feet with her front flippers. Some of it lands on us. The eggs are covered and she continues to cover the entire hole. Flip, flip, flip, flip with the front flips. Moving dirt around with back flippers. Then rest for a moment. Inching forward as more of the hole is filled. It’s now 11:30pm and we begin to think about going back. Some people have already drifted off. 

We start walking.  200 meters away we come upon another Green turtle laying eggs. She has just started. Saman shows us an egg. We watch for a moment then keep walking the kilometer back. Quietly and excited about the evenings activites and ready for sleep. 


But we’re not done yet. 

We come upon a third green turtle. She’s magnificent. Almost 60 years old and 5 feet long. The largest and oldest turtle we’ve seen. She’s already finished laying eggs and is filling the hole. Flip, flip, flip. Pause. Flip, flip, flip. 

All three will likely be back in 2 weeks to deposit another batch of 100+ eggs. 

We continue our walk home and the 30 minute drive back to the hotel. Tired and excited about what we’ve seen. 

Dambulla Cave Temples


Pulling into the parking lot, the first thing we see is a giant golden Buddha. It’s quite cheesy. This can’t really be Dambulla. We were expecting more majestic and serious.  This was indeed the entrance to the famous Dambulla Cave Temples. To the side began the staircases that take you 160 meters up to the 2,000 year old caves. We hoped the climb was worth it. 

Then Champika, our driver, said come back to the car– there is an easier way up. A few short minutes later we arrived at another spot. We got out of the car and looked up. And groaned. Another set of steep stairs. The day before we had been to Sigirya and climbed 1,200 steps. 

We began to climb with great expectations.  We entered the first Cave. If we weren’t already out of breathe, it would have taken our breath away. 


The Dambulla caves date back to the 1st century BC, though there are caves and buddhas that have been added recently. There are 5 caves with more than 150 Buddhas and paintings. It is thought to have been established during the 1st century BC by King Valagamba. 

As we walking into the dimly lit first cave, the first thing we saw was a 45 foot long reclining Buddha. It was indeed impressive. 

The second cave is the largest–the Temple of the Great King. It is 150 feet wide and 20 feet high. There are 2 statues of King Valagamba. On the ceiling we saw water running upwards before dropping into a huge urn. This water is used for sacred rituals because the upward flow is so unusual. The main Buddha statue sits under a cobra hood and was once covered in gold leaf. There are dozens of Buddhas in the cave and the ceiling is covered in painting. 

The third cave was converted from a store room in the 18th century and has a beautiful reclining buddha. There isn’t too much to say about the 4th cave. The fifth cave has both Buddhist and Hindu imagery. 

It was definitely worth the climb. As we began to exit, we looked up and saw a beautiful rainbow above the caves. We took this as a good omen and began the climb down. 

Anuradhapura–Our Experience of Poya Day


We set off to see Anuradhapura on our first morning in Sri Lanka. We were excited to see this UNESCO world heritage site. We knew it was large and we would be able to see only a small portion. As we got closer, the traffic started to get heavy. And there were hundreds of families in all manner of transport. Some walking. Some in three-wheelers. Some on motorcycles and bikes. Every age was represented from very elderly to infants in their parent’s arms. Many were dressed in all white and often barefoot. 

We asked Champika what was happening. He told us that it was Poya Day. Once a month, the morning after a full moon is Poya Day and everyone goes to pray. And we mean EVERYONE. Sri Lanka is 70% Buddhist and many businesses are closed on Poya Day. 


Families arrive early in the morning and most don’t leave until dusk. Along the path to the Temple were tents featuring free food for the devotees. Many families hung out eating, sleeping and generally resting in between their pilgrimages to the dagobas. 
Visitors to these sacred grounds must remove hats and footwear. Mind you in the 90 degree weather we hoped our soles would withstand the hot sand and stones. There were booths for leaving your foot ware to keep safe though many people arrived barefoot and other left their shoes on the floor outside the temples. 

Devotees carry a bunch of fragrant flowers as offerings to their gods. They walk around the stupas several times praying. 

Especially crowded was the site of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree. This sacred tree was grown from a cutting brought from Bodhgaya in India. High security surrounds the sacred oldest tree in the Sri Lankan Buddhist world.  People were offering up robes & bowls for the monks  in exchange for blessings. 

Several days are needed to see the full site. We saw just a small portion and had the chance to experience Poya Day. 

After walking in bare feet on sand, gravel and very hot stones, we had one more stop–Mihintale. 

Cows and Cars and Elephants, Oh My: Driving in Sri Lanka

This cow is about to get on the highway

Driving in Sri Lanka is an endless adventure not for the faint of heart.  

Let’s start with the roads. Many roads are single lane and well paved. Outside the cities most of the side roads are dirt. 

But size does matter. 

Apparently any road large enough for 1 car is big enough for cars going in both directions. This presents some interesting logistical and geometric challenges when a car comes face to face with a truck traveling in the opposite direction. 

Then there are your companions on the road. At any given moment, you might find cows, lizards, dogs, water buffalo and elephants sharing the road. 


There are also bicycles, buses, trucks, tuk-tuks (or three wheelers as they are called here), motorcycles, people.  And there are fruit and vegetable stands everywhere with lots of people stopping to buy. 

Three-wheelers are like mosquitos. They buzz around and move into any empty space on the road. Zip. Zip. Zip. 


Now, three-wheelers and trucks drive slower than cars. That means that it takes forever to get to your destination…unless you pass them. How to do that? On a real two lane road (one lane in each direction), beep twice and then pass. This can be tricky on curvy mountain roads. And sometimes, there are three or four slow moving vehicles in a row. Some drivers will pass them all in one shot. Others pass 1 at a time. 

With all of this we saw very few accidents. Sri Lankans are very good drivers. Though we did almost have a heart attack a couple of times. 

And one last thing, schools let out at 1:30 causing massive traffic jams. Try to stay off the road during that time. 

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa dates to 1270 AD and was the second most ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka. It is a world heritage site with hundreds of Temples and other structures. 

There is almost 1000 years of history here. This was the capital of the South Indian Chola dynasty in the late 10th century. It sits at the head of a man-made lake that was created in the early 1200s. 
One of our favorite sites was Gal Vihara. This is a grouping of 4 Buddha images carved from one large slab of granite. 

The reclining Buddha is 14 meters long (about 42 feet) is said to be a depiction of the Buddha entering nirvana (after death). The site is very impressive and haunting. The first Buddha is 7 meters and is thought to be an image of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s disciples, mourning the Buddha’s ascendancy to Nirvana. 

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Opening of the Stupa​

Buddhists believe that a Tooth from the Buddha is being kept safe at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It is one of the holiest places in Sri Lanka and every Singhalese Buddhist is expected to make at least one pilgrimage in their life to the Temple in Kandy. Last night we joined many people and pilgrims for the opening of the Stupa to catch a glimpse of the place the Tooth is kept. Below is the performance done right before the opening of the Stupa. 

Ouch, Ouch, Ouch….visiting temple in Sri Lanka 

We spent the last two days visiting ancient temples and ruins in the northwestern part of Sri Lanka. Today we were in Anuradhapura at Jetavaranama–the first capital of Sri Lanka from 380 BC to 1200 AD–and then Minhitale Temple–one of the most sacred places for Buddhists in the country. The sites were very interesting and fun to see. 

We’ve been to temples all over the world and today brought some unique experiences. First, it was prayer day. Once a month, usually after the full moon, the government announce Prayer Day and everyone goes to the temples to pray. Second, it was 31 degrees centrigrade. Third, the Sri Lankan temples have a million stairs. Even the hotels have a ton of stairs. Today we walked the equivalent of 40 flights of stairs. And finally, you cannot wear shoes in the temples. That means most of the 40 flights we walked barefoot on stones that were very, very hot. While we hobbled along with our hot feet feeling every hot stone, pebble and grain of sand, Sri Lankan’s of all ages easily walked and climbed and prayed. 

The morale of the story–train your feet and quads before going to Sri Lanka. 

More on the temples tomorrow.